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THE DICTIONARY AS WITNESS Jennifer Robinson Commerical dictionaries in the U.S. have acquired an importance that is overwhelming. In her book, Language in Society, Jean Malmstrom speaks accurately of Americans as "dictionary worshippers."1 A dictionary, no matter what the size, age, publisher, or purpose is thought to contain all the meanings of all the words in the language. The general American public has an unshakeable faith in Webster's (if it says Webster's it has to be good). In disputes over words in Scrabble, the most common solution is "Look it up in the dictionary!" The nearest dictionary, often a worn-out pocket edition, becomes the authoritative work on the entire English language. Countless word games and arguments have been settled in this way; but other, more significant arguments have also been resolved by the "authority" of a dictionary. There have been cases argued in courts of law where the decisive factor in reaching the verdict was the testimony of a commercial dictionary. Probably the most cited example of the use of a dictionary definition in deciding a legal problem is the instance reported by Daniel Cook in American Speech.2 This case involved a man being arraigned on a complaint by a young woman whom he addressed as "chicken." The man claimed no wrong and called as his witness "Webster's dictionary." The judge then consulted "an antiquated copy of Webster," found the word did refer to a young woman, and subsequently released the defendant.3 Cook derides the magistrate's "unquestioning faith in the authority and accuracy of his dictionary. . ."4 Because that word and that sense were in "the" dictionary, the word was acceptable to the judge. This type of "worship" turns a dictionary into an arbiter of English usage, rather than a record. The dictionary used in this case, according to Cook, an abridgement of Webster'sNew International Dictionary, was not originally intended to be called to witness in a legal matter. Nevertheless, the judge had the blind faith most dictionary-worshippers have — faith that the dictionary only included "acceptable" words and blind to any difference in dictionaries. In this situation the only person hurt by the misguided judge's ruling was the woman who felt she had been insulted. In another example the outcome was 110 Jennifer Robinson111 not so fortuitous. In the case of Cook v. State, a case of appeal in the Supreme Court of Alabama, the defendant, Cook, had been convicted of selling oleomargarine in violation of the law. In the trial proceedings , the state introduced into evidence the definition of oleomargarine from "Webster's International Dictionary." The defendant charged this as an error on the grounds that the dictionary "was not authority on the subject."5 Referred to the higher court, the justice ruled that no error had been committed: The courts are expected to know and take knowledge of the meaning of any vernacular word which may be ascertained by reference to any standard authority. The offering in evidence of such standard authority may be superfluous, but is not injurious error.6 In this example, the dictionary was not as abridged as the judge's in the case cited previously, but the justices were still guilty of misplacement of authority. To rely on a general commercial dictionary as an authority on specialized subjects is a fallacy in itself, but to overrule an objection to such use of a dictionary definition is an even greater mistake; especially since only one dictionary's definition was used. Because dictionaries are compiled by human editors, the contents of dictionaries (including the definitions) are influenced by human personalities. This is something that may not cause much difference in deciding whether a word is allowable in Scrabble, but for legal matters, it must be taken into account. This was the attitude adopted by a justice of the Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Koechl v. United States. The appellant, Koechl, had been charged duty on an antitoxine for diphtheria. Koechl claimed the antitoxine was a duty-free vaccine virus and cited the definition of such from the Century Dictionary. The judge, obviously not a dictionary-worshipper (or perhaps just not a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 110-117
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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